Movies Till Dawn: Richard Harris vs. the Great Outdoors Double Bill

12 a.m. – “Man in the Wilderness” – Western/Action/Thriller

81q-2wudeel-_sl1500_(1971, Warner Archives Collection) Harris’s second collaboration with producer Sanford (Sandy) Howard and screenwriter Jack DeWitt (after the sadistic “Man Called Horse”) is this 19th century wilderness adventure, a success in its day but largely forgotten until this Blu-ray release from Warner Archives. While leading fur trappers through uncharted American territory, Irish guide Zach Bass (Harris) is mauled by a bear and left for dead by the expedition’s leader, Captain Henry (John Huston). Through sheer will, he survives not only his injuries but also the harsh terrain and weather to rejoin his party as it comes under attack by Native American warriors. If this (mid)Western sounds familiar, that’s because it’s based on the story of Hugh Glass, the 19th century tracker played by Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Revenant.” Initially, both pictures follow a similar track – Bass and DiCaprio’s Glass are put through the physical wringer by a cruel world – but where Alejandro Innaritu’s film boils down to a glossy but brutal slog towards bloody revenge, “Wilderness” director Richard C. Sarafian (“Vanishing Point”) takes a more contemplative approach towards its protagonist and his harsh environment, allowing Bass to examine his life through long sequences of renewal and redemption in nature (well photographed by Gerry Fisher) – finding food in a snowy landscape, a Native American woman giving birth, and so on. For some, these largely dialogue-free sequences may slow down the pace of the picture (and others may find it hard to keep a straight face when Harris snuggles with a bunny), but they also offer a slightly more thoughtful (and less gory) trajectory for both character and audience than the later, more celebrated film. Herzog devotees may also enjoy the film’s most unusual and indelible image: a team of mules lugging an enormous riverboat on wheels across the plains in a desperate race to reach the Missouri River before the first snowfall. A host of fine character actors, including Percy Herbert, Norman Rossington (“A Hard Day’s Night”) Bob Dylan pal Ben Carruthers and (a hard-to-spot) James Doohan fill out the trappers’ ranks; WAC’s widescreen Blu-ray includes the original trailer.

2 a.m. – “The Deadly Trackers” – Western/Thriller

812is8rvrul-_sl1500_(1973, Warner Archives Collection) Pacifist sheriff Harris gets violent in a hurry after a gang of outlaws, led by ex-Confederate Rod Taylor, murders his wife and son during a bank robbery. The great, iconoclastic filmmaker Sam Fuller was initially hired to write and direct this revenge drama, and there are traces of his work threaded throughout the film, most notably in its lone-wolf antihero and bitterly ironic ending, as well as Al Lettieri’s savvy Mexican lawman, who serves as foil and moral compass for Harris as he descends into savagery. Clashes between Harris and producer Barry Kulik, and concern over scenes of Harris freaking out on peyote, spurred WB to replace Fuller with veteran TV director Barry Shear and dispatch nearly the entire cast, which included Alfonso Arau and Bo Hopkins. The new cast, which includes Neville Brand (as a grimy thug with what appears to be a chunk of railroad track for a hand), Paul Benjamin (“Do the Right Thing”) and big Willliam Smith as Taylor’s gang, offer terrific bad guy support, but the movie itself is a standard issue parable on violence begetting violence, with lots of mayhem to prove its point (which may be a selling point for viewers seeking spaghetti Western/grindhouse-style thrills). According to Fuller, Jim Morrison and Mick Jagger were briefly considered for Harris and Taylor’s roles (!). WAC’s Blu-ray is widescreen and includes the original trailer.

While We’re At It: “Manhunt in the Jungle” (Warner Archives Collection, 1958) is a kind of 719mpxioekl-_sl1000_proto-mondo movie, mixing stock and location footage with recreated scenes while purporting to follow the search for Major Percy Fawcett, a British military officer who disappeared in the Amazon jungle while searching for a lost city. British actor Robin Hughes plays the real-life explorer George Dyott, who wrote about his expedition to find Fawcett in his book, “Manhunting in the Jungle” (1930). Director Tom McGowan appears to grow bored with the meat of the story – Dyott endlessly slogging upriver – and tosses in the occasional animal attack (native bearer vs. snake, native bearer vs. piranha, alligator vs. alligator) to keep things lively. The mix of benign travelogue and exotica thrills is awkward and a bit voyeuristic (especially when Dyott wanders into a village of largely unclad natives), so this is probably best appreciated by camp/cult fans or jungle pic completists; one wonders if the proposed big-screen version of “Lost City of Z,” which detailed “New Yorker” writer David Grann’s search for Fawcett in 2005, will feature any animal fights. Though largely unknown today, Robin Hughes was an extremely busy actor at the time of this film’s release; theatergoers in 1958 could see him in four separate movies that year, including “Auntie Mame” and “The Thing That Couldn’t Die,” which cast him as the reanimated head of a 400-year old Satanist, or stay home and see him in guest roles on at least six different series.

About Paul Gaita

Paul Gaita lives in Sherman Oaks, California with his lovely wife and daughter. He has written for The Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Variety and The Fix, among many other publications, and was a home video reviewer for Amazon.com from 1998 to 2014. He has interviewed countless entertainment figures from both the A and Z lists, but his favorites remain Elmore Leonard, Ray Bradbury and George Newall, who created both Schoolhouse Rock and the Hai Karate aftershave commercials. He once shared a Thanksgiving dinner with celebrity astrologer Joyce Jillson, and regrettably, still owes the late character actor Charles Napier a dollar.
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